Hudson River School

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HUDSON RIVER SCHOOL, a group of nineteenth-century painters inspired by the American landscape. In the realm of the arts, nineteenth-century Americans were torn between a conviction that their country was possessed of unique virtues and a belief that they should copy European masters. In one respect, what painters could learn from the Old World fitted exactly the conditions of their new land. The European Romantic movement taught a reverence for nature at its wildest, and along with that an awe in the presence of power, darkness, and mystery, all of them evocable in scenes of natural grandeur. Americans possessed a landscape such as the Romantic imagination sought, presenting itself not in quiet and domesticated detail but in great spaces broken into by deep forests, wild waters, and violent storms.

Painters were discovering similar moods on the European continent, to be sure. But the peculiar mating of Romanticism, transmitted to the United States in the form of transcendentalism, with a wilderness that Americans saw as their unspoiled and inviting heritage awakened a distinctive artistic sensibility. In the second and third quarters of the nineteenth century, American nature was captured particularly by a group of painters known collectively as the Hudson River school. The designation "Hudson River school" was first applied dismissively late in the century, but has since become an honored name.

Early in the nineteenth century, much of the American concept of good painting took its definition from the American Academy of Fine Arts, which drew on formal European composition. The National Academy of Design, founded in 1825, was an instrument for the propagation of the Romantic venture. Practitioners traveled into remote regions to make sketches; much of their finished work took place in studios in New York City. Albert Bierstadt drew on western scenery, notably in his Rocky Mountains, Landers Peak (1863) and his Lower Yellowstone Falls. Frederic Edwin Church mined landscape in Ecuador, including an active volcano. Others included Thomas Doughty, Thomas Cole, George Inness, and Asher Brown Durand. Adherents to the new aesthetic had faith in the instruction given by nature on its own terms. Some of the Hudson River paintings do not depict an exact geographic scene but one heightened by the painter's imagination. However, they were generally of a mind with Henry David Thoreau, whose writings depict spiritual patterns in nature yet describe them in the most exquisitely precise detail of a veined leaf, a colony of ants, a rivulet of water tracing downhill. The result, or at least the effort of such an apprehension of nature, therefore brought together enterprises that coexist uneasily: an intellectual construct in Romanticism, scientific inquiry, and artistic execution.

In the mid-1830s, the British immigrant Cole carried out a more abstract and idealized work in his ambitious series The Course of Empire, an essay on canvas describing through stages the hope and folly of human endeavor. It goes from the violent landscape Savage State through Pastoral or Arcadian and Consummation of Empire to Destruction to Desolation, depicting ruined colonnades amid a reasserted nature. Such explicit instruction in the evils of overcivilization was the exception. More common were presentations of a nature of commanding force yet life-giving to humanity if it will accept it in itself. Durand's familiar Kindred Spirits, painted in 1849, puts the figures of Cole and William Cullen Bryant atop a crag looking over a rugged yet benign wilderness. Their communion with each other and their surroundings catches the transcendentalist perception of a oneness between mind and nature.

By the century's last quarter, artistic aims and techniques were changing. Part of the reason, doubtless, was a decline in Romanticism in its transcendentalist American form, which intellectuals had for a time adopted as virtually a reigning American ethos. A new aesthetic developed in France, the Barbizon school, was competing with the manner of the Hudson River painters. One artist, George Inness, bridged the shift. Artists continued to seek majesty and refreshment in nature; but they sought a freer and more personally experimental rendering of natural scenery.


Cooper, James F. Knights of the Brush: The Hudson River School and the Moral Landscape. New York: Hudson Hills Press, 1999.

Howat, John K. The Hudson River and Its Painters. New York: Penguin Books, 1972.

Lassiter, Barbara Babcock. American Wilderness: The Hudson River School of Painting. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1977.


See alsoArt: Painting .

Hudson River School

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Hudson River School (c.1825–75) Group of US landscape painters influenced by European Romanticism. They were so named because of their idealized scenes of the Hudson River valley. The group included Thomas Cole, Frederick E. Church, Henry Inman, and Asher B. Durand.;

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